by N Sathiya Moorthy
The current impasse in the peace process in Sri Lanka should worry friends of the nation, including India. Starting haltingly in the post-war months, the negotiations between the Government and the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) has been deadlocked, so to say, with neither side wanting to go the other’s way as far as the process are concerned.
The problems and solutions would have to wait. The fact however is that the deadlocked processes, if they have to be still known that way, is dangerously drifting towards nowhere. Such a drift in the past had pushed what was essentially a political issue with a possible political solution to other means.
For months now, the Government and the TNA have stopped talking. That was after 18 rounds of negotiations, after which each side said, or implied, that the other was shifting the goal-post, consistently and persistently so. Neither of the negotiations teams had a clear mandate but the TNA delegation still seemed to have a clearer idea on what to discuss and where to go from there.
The Government delegation, purportedly stronger in terms of negotiations issues and skills, did not seem to be clear on what it was tasked with. Or, that was the TNA’s complaint at every turn. Till date, the Government side as not contested the TNA’s claim.
The Government’s subsequent proposal for a Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) to negotiate a national consensus to the ‘national problem’ is both logical and practical. If it was a genuine-afterthought and not a delaying tactic is a question. The Tamils have always argued that successive attempts of the kind for decades now were only a delaying tactic.
They seemed convinced all through there again questions remain. For, such a line of argument would imply a great ‘national conspiracy’ on the Sinhala side. It would imply that the two ‘Sinhala political majors’, namely the SLFP and the UNP, were playing good-cop-bad-cop, whoever was in Government and whoever was in the Opposition at a given point.
Yet, no harm would come the Government’s way if it were to assuage the feelings and fears of those sections of the Tamil, whom it says are ‘genuine’ in its perception. With President Mahinda Rajapaksa scheduled to address Parliament in the Budget Session in November, the Government could consider giving a national commitment in the matter.
An initiative, purportedly by the UNP Leader of the Opposition Ranil Wickremesinghe did not go too far. Media reports at the time had indicated that at one stage, the Government was expected to respond positively to his initiative, in turn roping in the TNA into the PSC process, too.
The TNA’s pathway to permanent peace seems to be as illogical as it sounds logical on paper, particularly in the context of the PSC proposal. The logic is based on a purportedly existing ‘national consensus’ of sorts if the Government were to give a commitment at the negotiations table.
The TNA is also not wrong when it says that what had started off as negotiations with the Government, under the seal of the President’s Secretariat, is since being explained away as with the SLFP leader of the ruling coalition in Parliament. Be it as it may, the TNA has not protested overly on that score.
The changed Government position implies that the leadership is not sure of unstinted support from coalition partners to any bilateral negotiated settlement with the TNA. In the US recently, Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) leader and Justice Minister Rauff Hakkeem reportedly told the American interlocutors that the TNA could not speak or negotiate for the Muslim community.
As if to contest this claim, the TNA has since argued that the Alliance would not ‘desert’ its ‘Muslim brethren as the SLMC has done’ after the Eastern Provincial Council polls.
Every section of the otherwise divided Muslim polity in the country is very much a part of the Government of the day, as they have been on most occasions in the past. So are sections of the Tamil polity, whose differences with the TNA over possible solutions to the ethnic issue are relatively over methods, not motives.
Where motives are involved, Tamil parties and groups backing the Government feel that the TNA is not speaking to the pro-LTTE Diaspora Tamils, but is speaking for them. Then there is the question of ‘Upcountry Tamils’, whose divided polity is otherwise united in the neglect of the community by the Government to an extent, but by the ‘Sri Lankan Tamil polity’, even more.
The on-again-off-again internal squabbling within the TNA may have eroded some of its credibility to deliver on the promises that it might have to give the Government in bilateral relations, or the PSC, or both.
Maybe, unlike in the months immediately following the war, the TNA may have to convince the Government and the rest of the world that they are a united lot, and they would not be rendered as ‘powerless’ as their moderate predecessors were rendered helpless by the emerging ranks of Tamil militant youth groups in the Eighties and beyond.
In the weeks after Eastern PC polls, TNA leader Sampanthan declared at a meeting of his ‘Ilankkai Tamizh Arasu Kadchi’ (ITAK) that the Tamils had given no authorisation to anyone to destroy the Alliance.
As if in retaliation, the four non-ITAK partners in the TNA have written what has become an ‘open letter’ to Sampanthan, charging the ITAK with motives in not wanting to have the Alliance registered as a party independent of the ITAK and with an election symbol independent of the ITAK’s ‘House’ symbol.
In the post-war period, the TNA has proved, time and again, that it needed negotiations or elections to keep the flock together. It is not a healthy sign that the TNA is sending out to the larger community, and the larger country.
The TNA also may have to take the initiative to convince the Government of the day – and by extension, the international community – that the UNP Opposition, which is always seen as endorsing any reasonable political package to the Tamil community. Yet, such promises have been followed by reversals, which is at the core of Tamils suspicions.
After the JRJ commitments and 13-A, came the Premadasa regime. With the ‘Chandrika Package’ came the UNP burning the Constitution Amendment Bill in Parliament, citing reasons that have been for from convincing to date.
The PSC thus makes for the right choice of the course. It is not without reason., From the Fifties on, the Tamils have pointed to a pattern. It is anybody’s guess what magic-wand the TNA has now to make the UNP stick to its commitments. Going by the experience of the past, no such commitment could be taken for granted, from any stake-holder, unless they are in the know of what commitments they are being asked to commit to.
Less said about the attitude and approach of non-SLFP partners in the ruling UPFA coalition, the better it is for anticipated results. A ‘national discourse’ alone can provide the answers. The PSC could provide a structured forum, the next and only step being the full House, which would then have (only) to vote?
In a nation where Prime Minister Premadasa (the successor President, to boot) did not endorse 13-A when formulated by his President, J R Jayewardene, safer would it be to assume that President Rajapaksa too could not count the chickens before the eggs are hatched, in terms of outright parliamentary party support for his peace proposals from his SLFP.
If the argument is that the Government could get his 18-A passed and needed only the will to get any ethnic deal through the UPFA parliamentary group, the answer is this. JRJ too had Parliament voting for an extension of its term, but could not carry his party wholly with him on the ethnic issue (despite having 13-A passed by it).
The internal squabbling in the TNA has come when an Alliance delegation is due to visit New Delhi, for discussions with the Indian leadership. It is anybody’s guess how the TNA expects India to react to its positions on the political solution back home.
It is worse still if one considered what the TNA would have to say on possible ‘actions’ that India may have to initiate to keep the peace process going and in the right direction towards a solution acceptable to all stake-holders in Sri Lanka. In the absence of demonstrable unity of purpose and processes as a political party, the TNA may lose credibility with the international community – which it believes that the Sri Lankan Government has lost, already.
India already faces the embarrassment of such credibility questions on the Sri Lankan Government’s commitments in the war years, which it had used to argue Colombo’s case with and in the international community. Today, the TNA is pushing itself to a similar corner, without any external help or initiative – other than possibly from sections of the Tamil Diaspora, if at all.
Not that anyone in the TNA hierarchy needed such external influence or inducement. With the peace process deadlocked already, the emerging scenario is further drifting away from whatever processes that are possible under the circumstances – but are becoming increasingly impossible, too!
(The writer is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation for which this paper was written)